Wednesday, July 9, 2008

RAMBO - familiar face, new story, good film-making

Growing up in the 70s and 80s allowed me to enjoy some classic eras for cinema. One that I'm thinking of in particular is the well-loved genre of the "80s action movie," which includes films like "The Terminator," "Lethal Weapon," "Die Hard," and of course the series of "Rambo" films.

You'd have to be living in a shack somewhere in Thailand to have missed the release of the most recent of this series -- titled simply "Rambo" -- which is now on pay per view but soon to be in wide-release on DVD. The first film in the franchise, 1982s "First Blood" introduced us to John Rambo, a former Vietnam Vet who has returned to the States to find that he is not welcomed as a hero. Dissillusioned, he becomes a drifter, hitchiking from town to town, visiting his former war buddies and living a simple existence.

Brian Denney, the sheriff of one particular town in Oregon (ironically named "Hope") runs our hero out of his little berg figuring him a trouble maker. Rambo of course rebels, is jailed, abused by the deputies, escapes into the dense northwestern forest, and proceeds to take out every member of the sheriff's department (and later the national guard) who they send against him.

Not just a blood and gore shoot 'em up, "First Blood" carries the underlying theme of the forgotten Vietnam War Vet -- a segment of the American population who never received the credit they deserved nor the treatment for the physical and mental wounds which they carried off the battlefields of Southeastern Asia.

Due to the popularity of "First Blood," we were treated to the sequel "Rambo: First Blood Part II," also penned in part by Stallone, focusing on his return to Vietnam in order to save some left-behind POW's. Released in 1985, the idea of missing Vietnam Vets forgotten by the U.S. government and unacknowledged by communist North Vietnam and their allies the Soviet Union was fresh in the minds of many, and made for yet another underlying theme in which to set the distruction and mayhem that Rambo laid upon the evil "commies."

Even more violent than the original, but still packed with plenty of drama and male bravado, this was the best in the original three films, and 80s audiences (including myself) ate it all up and asked for more. This was the height of the 80s action movie era and fans knew that a second sequel was a foregone conclusion. Notable in other key roles in the film are Richard Crenna, who returned as Rambo's commanding officer Colonel Trautman, and Martin Kove, who many will remember as the leader of the Cobra Kai's in 1984s "Karate Kid."

The third film, while not as good as the second, still held plenty of action, drama, explosions, cool kill scenes, and lots of delicious cold war tension. In this installment Rambo takes the Russians straight on in Afghanistan where they have taken his former commanding officer Colonel Trautman hostage. Released in 1988, in the waning years of the Cold War, it's ironic to note that the Soviets would withdraw from Afghanistan less than a year after the release of "Rambo III."

Twenty years would pass before the simply named "Rambo" came out in theatres, not only partially written by, but also directed by Sylvester Stallone. Although he looks a little more ragged and a few years older, our hero is now resigned to a life of capturing deadly snakes for a seedy backwater tourist trap in Thailand when a group of Christian missionaries persuade him to take them up the river in his boat to do some missionary work in Burma. What could go wrong?

Of course everything does, and who else can save the day but John J. Rambo? Shot with a dark and realistic sensitivity, this film didn't try to do too much and kept the action and the story simple but tight. Coming in at about 90 minutes, the film moved quickly and hit all of the right notes as Rambo faces the fact that he was born to wage war and to him it comes "as easy as breathing."

The message of this film -- that there are still war-torn hell holes in the world where unthinkable atrocities occur daily -- are strong but not preachy, poignant but not too political. Most astonishing of all, this film accomplishes what I never thought it could: it is the most violent of the four films; with realistic, barbaric, and sometimes unbelievable scenes of death, distruction, and dismemberment that leave a viewer saying "I can't believe they just did that."

Scenes like these in "Rambo" don't feel gratuitous as much as they serve to drive home the realism of a barbaric world that we as Americans living in the most free democratic society in the world cannot even fathom. "Rambo" is not only a perfect vehicle for Stallone and company to bring back this beloved character forever etched in the collective moviegoing mind of the last quarter century, but is also a fantastic vehicle for laying the franchise to bed in a dignified and appropriate manner. Seeing our man in action one last time brought nostalgia and closure at the same time for this penultimate child of the 80s. *****

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